Steven Wilson: The Harmony Codex – A Different Perspective

Steven Wilson - The Harmony CodexI was working in a record store in Memphis in the early to mid 1990s when I first discovered (and became obsessed with) Steven Wilson’s music through his albums released under the name Porcupine Tree.  If you’re aware of Steven Wilson’s slow progression tapping into the United States market, you might have an immediate surprised reaction when you think about what I just wrote above.

Early to Mid 1990s.  Memphis:  Southeastern United States.  Steven Wilson / Porcupine Tree?  I dare say had Porcupine Tree toured the USA with The Sky Moves Sideways and stopped in Memphis for a show, they may very well have only played to the bartender and me.

Now to properly paint the picture, when I heard the magic of Porcupine Tree for the first time, I was not “only” into prog nor metal nor grunge nor alternative nor any other genre for that matter.  I have always said, in fact, that there are only two kinds of music:  good and bad.  I tend to prefer the good kind, regardless of style.

One band that I was particularly fond of in those years was Tangerine Dream.  Edgar Froese’s work – especially the albums from 1970 through 1981 (Electronic Meditation through Exit) inspired me like almost nothing else.  Part of the inspiration was that Tangerine Dream was so different from what I typically listened to.  But another part of the inspiration was that, well, Tangerine Dream was really that amazing.  Three of their albums in particular, Zeit, Phaedra, and Stratosfear, spent as much time in my car’s cassette deck as did Ozzy Osbourne’s No More Tears, Metallica’s “Black Album,” and Nirvana’s Nevermind – all albums that shaped my youth.

When I shared this new gem called Porcupine Tree with my friend and co-worker, he took one listen to the first track on The Sky Moves Sideways and immediately left work, consumed some psychedelics, and came back to work the next day to tell me I had changed his world with this musical introduction.  When he handed the CD back to me he said the following:  “Louis, I think I figured out who Porcupine Tree really is.  This band is the biggest Tangerine Dream fan in all the world.  Even the number of syllables match.  And that’s no coincidence.”  He began to enunciate for emphasis.  “Tan-Ger-Ine-Dream.  Por-Cu-Pine-Tree.”  I know, I know.  But it made sense to him.  He was on psychedelics.

As I continued to share Steven Wilson and Porcupine Tree with our customers, many took one listen to The Sky Moves Sideways, heard the more experimental music from On The Sunday of Life and Up the Downstair, and reported that it sounded like Pink Floyd to them (which was a compliment, for sure).  But, you see, they were “unaware” of Tangerine Dream.

My co-worker and I knew better.  We agreed that Wilson was heavily inspired by Tangerine Dream… while Pink Floyd was probably “just his favorite band.”  And sometimes – often times – influence is more important than favorite.  As years (and decades) passed, Steven Wilson has given many interviews where he has stated exactly that very thing:  Tangerine Dream was (and is) a major influence, Zeit (Tangerine Dream) is his favorite album of all time, and yet Pink Floyd is his favorite band.  Somehow, my friend and I nailed it back then.

Advance ahead – because we need to get to The Harmony Codex.  I followed Steven Wilson’s music over the decades and my appreciation for his art just grew with every release.  Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun were instant favorites with tracks like “A Smart Kid,” “Where We Would Be,” “Shesmoveson,” and “Russia on Ice.”  While Tangerine Dream’s influence was no longer as prominent in these works, the song writing just got better and better.  By the time In Absentia came out and the “heavy side” of Porcupine Tree began to surface, I found it even easier to share his music with others.  The first time I ever heard Porcupine Tree played by someone else was in late 2002.  I was in downtown Memphis when suddenly, over the club’s PA system, I heard “Blackest Eyes.”  I was shocked!  I thought that finally this hidden gem I had discovered so long ago – Steven Wilson – would now get the attention he deserved!  But alas, in the USA, at least, it didn’t happen.  More heavy prog sounds followed from Porcupine Tree… Deadwing, Fear of a Blank Planet, The Incident.  But during this time, Wilson also began releasing albums under his own name as a solo project.  And Insurgentes (2008) was the album that, for me, marked the beginning of a return to the Porcupine Tree’s roots.  We’ll come back to this momentarily.

While the US was still very slow in recognition of Steven Wilson, much of the world had woken up to his music in the 2000s.  And what that meant was the “2000s Porcupine Tree sound.”  For many of these new fans, In Absentia was incorrectly thought of as “an early album.”  During the Porcupine Tree hiatus, while we were getting albums under the names “Blackfield” and “Steven Wilson,” many more fans had discovered the music of Porcupine Tree… and almost exclusively, that meant In Absentia through The Incident.  The heavy sound.  With each “Steven Wilson” or “Blackfield” release, I’d read fan forums and reviewers praising his work – but wondering when he’d return to the prog metal sounds of In Absentia, Deadwing, or Fear of a Blank Planet: the style that made him famous (even, finally, in the USA – to an extent).  But more troubling, beginning with To the Bone and certainly escalating with The Future Bites, I read many more people call the heavy prog sound of 2002-2009 his “roots” or his “original sound.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Go back to the early-mid 1990s for that:  On the Sunday of Life.  Up the Downstair, Voyage 34, The Sky Moves Sideways.  The era when people might have said he was the next Pink Floyd.  That was his roots.  That was his original sound.  But the Pink Floyd comparison – while perhaps valid – was missing something important.  Another comparison would have fit equally well if not much better:  Tangerine Dream.

Steven Wilson’s mind has certainly been wrapped in Tangerine Dream over the past few years.  He remixed their 1973-1979 material in a beautiful box set called In Search of Hades which was released in 2019.  In even more recent interviews, he has been outspoken of his influence from Tangerine Dream.  And there’s even the “King Ghost” Tangerine Dream remix from Wilson’s The Future Bites release.

When The Harmony Codex was first released, I immediately began seeing some of the same familiar rants on fan forums.  “When will he get back to the prog sounds of The Raven That Refused to Sing?” and  “When will he get back to the heavy sounds of Deadwing?” and “What’s with his new obsession with electronic sounds?”

If you’ve heard The Harmony Codex and agree that it’s a masterpiece – one of Wilson’s greatest achievements – you can stop reading.  But I have a challenge for those of you who think he’s strayed from his roots and who “don’t get this new sound.”  Keeping in mind what I wrote about Wilson’s beginnings, I ask you to listen to those early Porcupine Tree albums again… at least listen to On The Sunday of Life and The Sky Moves Sideways and then – afterwards, listen to Virgin era albums from Tangerine Dream such as Stratosfear and Phaedra.  Finally, listen to The Harmony Codex.  You should then see that The Harmony Codex is Steven Wilson’s Tangerine Dream album.  And I think he did an amazing job with it!  Right from the start, “Inclination” invokes 1970s Tangerine Dream.  The title song, “The Harmony Codex,” sounds like it could have been one of Edgar Froese’s side art projects around the time of Stratosfear (1976).  Even so, he offers olive branches to those who wonder where the “other side” of Steven Wilson went.  “Impossible Tightrope” is an incredible prog journey nearly 11 minutes in length and “Time is Running Out” sounds like it could have been a missing track from Hand. Cannot. Erase., easily my favorite Steven Wilson solo album as of this writing.

I recommend you approach The Harmony Codex understanding that Steven Wilson’s compositional roots lie more in Syd Barrett and Edgar Froese than they do with prog metal, even though we all agree he is a master at heavier progressive rock.  That’s not to say this album “sounds like a Tangerine Dream album.”  But you’ll certainly recognize the influence behind the textures, beats, and sequencer sounds.  With this in mind, I think the listener will fully understand the musical direction he took with this album.  And I personally feel his intentions with The Harmony Codex was realized much more effectively than with his previous album, The Future Bites.

No need to speak much on the sonic quality of The Harmony Codex – that subject’s been covered by everyone who has reviewed the album already. And I agree – it’s sonically breathtaking.  But what else would we expect from Steven Wilson at this point?

For me, when I listen to Steven Wilson or Porcupine Tree, what I put on depends on how I feel – or how I want to feel.  There isn’t a “he was better then” or “he is better now” mindset.  It’s all about frame of mind, in the moment.  Am I feeling (or want to feel or empathize with) regret or loss?  Hand. Cannot Erase.  Do I feel out of place in this world so different from the one in which I grew up?  Fear of a Blank Planet.  Do I feel the creeping through of a dark side coming out to catch a glimpse of the light?  In Absentia.  Do I feel nostalgic and want to relive days past?  Lightbulb Sun.  Am I feeling trippy?  Up the Downstair.  Sad?  Grace for Drowning.  Aggressive?  Deadwing.  Contemplative?  The Harmony Codex.  Do I just want to hear amazing music?  Anything he’s ever released.

 

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